Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Spice of Life

We cross a rickety but troll-free bridge, made of matchsticks overlaid with red coconut matting, to reach the island spice plantation. As we step off, we’re welcomed with leis, and ginger and lemon tea, before the tour begins. In our group, there are about twenty of us, Danish, German, Iranian, a fair cocktail of nationalities, but Martin, our Indian guide, does his spiel in English.
Within twelve seconds of leaving the bamboo-roofed home-base, I am lost, utterly bejungled. All coconut palms look the same to me. Needless to say, Mr Roland’s keeping the sun over his left shoulder, or he’s got the compass out of his Pathfinder shoes, because he knows where he is at all times. “Stay close to me, Madame,” Martin says. “I will show you the way. You do not mind, sir?” Sir doesn’t look as if he minds at all ....
Martin’s favourite game is “Guess the Spice.” He drops a torn leaf or bark fragment onto our open palms. We inhale enthusiastically, then try to name the plant. By the time we finish the tour, we’re hyperventilating, and as high as kites. They work hard, the plants, not only in the kitchen cupboard, but also in the medicine-cabinet. Doc Martin reels off recipes for embrocations and infusions to cure all ailments, from toothache to depression. (Cloves and cardamom, respectively. See, I was listening.)
Do you know, if you leave your nutmeg in its shell, it’ll keep for ten years? Without the shell, two or three years. I choose not to tell Martin about the nutmegs loitering on my spice-rack at home, which will be old enough to apply for a driving licence soon... Nutmeg’s a soporific, apparently. If you chew a piece the size of a peppercorn, “before you go to the bed,” you will have hours of sweet sleep. “But warning: you eat whole nutmeg, sleep for hours and hours and not wake up again.” Martin strolls off to the next tree, laughing. I spit my nutmeg shard into my hand, and put it in my pocket, for later.

We examine the cashew tree. Each cashew apple produces a single nut, which, bizarrely, grows on the outside. It could therefore take a whole treeful, to make one bag of nuts. Think about that, next time you’re in Tesco’s. The apples are crushed and boiled, and distilled in earthenware pots. Second distillation produces Feni, forty-five percent proof liqueur. You can understand its use as cheering-up juice, but Goan mothers give this to their children, too - a spoonful, mixed with honey and water, Nature’s Lemsip. I cough, hopefully, but Martin is impervious to entreaty, and we move on, to discover the secrets of the Betel tree.
With a bit of twig, he scrapes the earth at his feet to reveal a knobbly root. Ginger. We all nod, complacently, and say “Ginger!” to each other. “Is no ginger,” says Martin, deflating us. “Is turmeric.” He generously forgives us for being confused. “The ginger and the turmeric, they are as sister.” If you think turmeric’s just for turning rice yellow, get this: you can sprinkle a pinch on an open wound, and it will stop the bleeding. But, beware: unscrupulous spice-dealers will sell you turmeric, and call it saffron, the scally-wags, so don’t buy it on the streets. Martin said.
We sniff our final leaf. Cardamom? Ginger? Cinnamon? Our guesses come fast and thick, until Roland has a herbal epiphany, and says “Allspice!” Martin makes him Head Boy, and I go and stand next to him, to catch some glory and look omniscient by association.
On our way back, trip-trap, over the rickety bridge, we see a snake, swimming in the water. “What do they eat?” I ask. “Tourists?” Martin’s not just a spice-wallah, he’s a business-man. “If snake eat tourist,” he says, concisely, “No people coming.” The tourist industry, in a nutshell.